Congress Should Let the SEC Do its Job

Lucian Bebchuk is Professor of Law, Economics, and Finance at Harvard Law School. Robert J. Jackson, Jr. is Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Bebchuk and Jackson served as co-chairs of the Committee on Disclosure of Corporate Political Spending, which filed a rulemaking petition requesting that the SEC require all public companies to disclose their political spending. Bebchuk and Jackson are also co-authors of Shining Light on Corporate Political Spending, published in the Georgetown Law Journal. A series of posts in which Bebchuk and Jackson respond to objections to an SEC rule requiring disclosure of corporate political spending is available here. All posts related to the SEC rulemaking petition on disclosure of political spending are available here.

Last week, the House Appropriations Committee included in its 2016 appropriations bill for financial services agencies a provision that would prevent the SEC from developing rules that would require public companies to disclose their political spending. Although this provision is unlikely to become law, its adoption is regrettable. In our view, Congress should let the SEC do its job and use its expert judgment—free of political pressures in any direction—to determine what information should be disclosed to public-company investors.

In July 2011, we co-chaired a committee of ten corporate and securities law academics that petitioned the SEC to develop rules requiring public companies to disclose their political spending. The SEC has now received over 1.2 million comments on the proposal—more than any rulemaking petition in the SEC’s history. As we have explained in previous posts on the Forum, the case for rules requiring disclosure of corporate spending is compelling. Unfortunately, Chairman Mary Jo White has faced significant political pressure not to develop such rules, and the Commission has so far chosen to delay consideration of rules in this area.

As we explained in earlier posts on the Forum (see, for example, posts here and here), we view this delay as regrettable in light of the compelling arguments in favor of disclosure and the breadth of support that the petition has received. Furthermore, as we explain in detail in our article Shining Light on Corporate Political Spending, an analysis of the full range of objections that opponents of transparency have raised makes clear that these opponents have failed to provide a convincing basis for keeping corporate political spending below investors’ radar screen.

We agree with the bipartisan group of three former SEC Commissioners who just last month referred to the SEC’s inaction on the petition as “inexplicable.” At a minimum, the broad support and compelling arguments in favor of disclosure of corporate spending on politics make clear that the Commission should move promptly to consider the petition on the merits. Unfortunately, last week’s move by the Appropriations Committee reflects another attempt to avoid consideration of the rulemaking petition on its merits. Members of Congress should not try to prevent the SEC from even considering the substantive merits of the petition.

While corporate political spending is an issue that politicians are naturally interested in, our petition focuses on whether investors should receive information regarding political spending at the companies they own. That is an issue that falls squarely within the SEC’s mandate and expertise. Regardless of their views on corporate political spending, Congressmen of all stripes should avoid interfering with the Commission’s rulemaking processes. We urge them to allow the SEC to do its job.

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